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"It is the journey which makes up your life."

Monday, April 03, 2006

Alycia, part 2: ﻣﺪﻴﻨﺔ ﺑﺘﺭﺓ (sp?)

Enter medinat Betra, the city of Petra:

We were indeed the first tourists to arrive that morning, as the man at the ticket booth hadn't even bothered to open up his ticket window yet. We bought our tickets and headed on down into the beginning of the as-Siq gorge that acts as the labyrinthine entrance to the ancient city. We passed a massive obelisk-capped tomb carved right from the rock, and a number of strange rock formations that had clearly been modified by the city's ancient inhabitants for some purpose or other.

Petra was built by a group of people called the Nabateans. Apparently they were an ancient Arab tribe who built an empire from south Jordan to Damascus and
the Sinai using the profits derived from the "caravaneering" trade, which is to say, levying tolls and "protecting" caravans of traders travelling through their territory. They were eventually conquered by and absorbed into the Roman empire, which is why you might notice some rather heavy Greco-Roman influences in Petra's architecture.

In any case...

The air was cool in the soft light of the rising sun, but the sky was already a ridiculous shade of blue, portending a toasty afternoon. As we wandered further into the rising walls of the massive gorge, we could hear birds singing everywhere overhead, and the echoing clack-clack of the janitor sweeping up the remains of the previous day just out of sight ahead of us. Otherwise, nothing. It was incredibly beautiful and serene, and you could sense almost tangibly precisely why this site had been considered sacred for so long. It also looked like a great place to bring young kids, as Leah (from Arizona, and the only other person in our little group besides me who had ever been to Disneyland) and I could not stop drawing parallels between the little niches and cavelets in the rock and the awesome "rock" maze on Tom Sawyer Island.

We dawdled along the way in the lull of the first peace and quiet any of us three AUC students had experienced in a very long while and took probably thousands of photos of the rock walls of the gorge soaring up above us. Petra is easily the most beautiful place I've ever been. Seriously. Completely without warning the narrowing gorge made a final twist to the right, and there we were--the Treasury, the most famous site in Petra, and one of the settings in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There were many camels camped out front, awaiting the tourists later in the day who would pay a pretty penny for the dubious privilege of riding them. We took our fill of photos there as well, then wandered farther down into the city (which seemed mostly, at that point, to consist of lots of massive tombs), pausing at a few salesmen's tents along the way to poke around at the items they were selling. Jordan is definitely the place to buy semiprecious stone and silver jewelry.

We went a little further to the massive amphitheater in the middle of the city, and camped out in some niches in the rock across the way from it to eat an early lunch before we headed back out. We clambered into one of the rock-cut chambers there and discovered the rock inside had some of the most amazing colors we'd ever seen. We immediately set out to take ourselves some "glamour shots" in front of it. Handily, my pants were exactly the same color. It was probably 9am by then, and the stone walls that enclosed the city were beginning to echo back the raucous noise of the first ranks of the all-pasty, all-too-short-shots-wearing tourists. We decided it was time to leave.

On the way out we noticed that the masses of people completely destroyed any sense of magic or peace the place had, and decided that we could not possibly get out of there soon enough. We returned to the hostel, finished repacking, and met up with Tarek. We were largely unconscious (again) for the trip back to Aqaba.

The border crossing back through Israel was significantly quicker than we thought it would be, though they detained my passport yet again. I'm starting to think I must be on some kind of CIA international terrorist list. I mean, I always knew I was a bit... left of center, but is this really necessary? I consider Alycia more of an instigator, and she had no problems. Nonetheless, we still ended up at the Taba end of things nearly two hours earlier than we were expecting to.

What to do with all this time we magically had on our hands? Well, on our way to the bus depot, a couple of men in galabeyyas came rushing at us, trying to persuade us to take their taxi service instead of the bus. They claimed it would be the same cost per person as the bus tickets, and that it would be much faster because we could leave right away, and the taxi wouldn't stop in such detours as Nuweiba and Suez as the bus would. We did have a lot of time to kill and I (and maybe one other person) had a midterm the following morning, so we figured it would be best to get back to Cairo as soon as we could in order to get some more studying in.

We bargained down the price a bit, accepted their offer and climbed into their minibus. The apparent lead guy told us it would just be a few minutes and went off to confer with some of his comrades. Fifteen minutes later we still hadn't left, and Mr. Lead Guy seemed to be trawling for more tourists to pack into the bus with us. This should already have been a tip-off, that they weren't following through with their stated intent to leave immediately, but we decided we'd get things done if we threw our weight around, and started to get out of the van. Mr. LG saw us immediately and ran over, desperate to not lose our money. He assured us that yes, yes we would be able to leave right away, but then noted that if we did, the four of us would have to take a different minibus (which was a serious junker) and pay an extra 25LE apiece. That TOO should have tipped us off, but we really wanted to shave off the alleged three hours they told us we would save, not to mention that being exposed to near-constant sketchy situations for the last few months had somewhat desensitized us, so we decided to go along with it anyway.

We got in the van and off we went. Hyewon and Leah took turns sleeping, and Alycia and I chatted as we zoomed precariously through the desert. It was getting dark when our driver pulled over into a gas station and informed us that he would not be driving us all the way back to Cairo as promised. Startled, we demanded to know why. He refused to say, instead assuring us that there was another driver, "his friend," who would take us the rest of the way. He promised us that he would pay "his friend" the proper share of our money so that we wouldn't have to pay any more money than we were already going to. Being four young females completely alone in the middle of the Sinai, we didn't have much choice but to warily agree with this arrangement. We drove on a little further until we reached a town (Suez, to be precise, so that's yet another promise they didn't follow through with) that had a large taxi depot. Our driver pulled in and began asking around. Finally he found "his friend," aka the first random taxi driver that was willing to accept Driver A's offer.

We made sure he paid Driver B, then paid our share to Driver A. We piled into Driver B's even junkier taxi, and off we went, again. By now it was fully dark. As we sped along, Alycia and I saw Driver B fiddling around with some weird mechanism where his stereo should have been, that turned out to be a mini TV screen. Were we to have "in-flight entertainment," then, we wondered? Well, not exactly. Not only did the driver blatantly not watch the dark road (with no headlights, I should mention) as he fiddled, but once he got it working, the logo "WWF Championship: Women's Division" came onscreen. Now, WWF is torment enough as it is, but this "Women's Division" consisted of nothing more than a pair of busty, scantily clad bleach-blondes squealing and tearing off each others' clothes while a horde of rednecks whooped it up in the background. Essentially, it was as close to porn as one could legally get in Egypt. That's right. Here we were, the four of us huddled in the back of a barely-running cab, in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, more or less completely at the mercy of this strange man who spoke virtually no English, and he decides it's a great idea to watch PORN. I think this was the singular most degrading experience I've ever had as a woman.

Leah pretended to sleep, Hyewon pleaded with him to turn it off, or at least to turn down the volume, and I glowered at him in the rearview mirror for the entire rest of the ride. Alycia cracked jokes to me, en Español, about me being the Godfather.

We began, finally, to approach the glimmering lights of civilization. We'd just barely reached the outskirts of wherever-the-heck-we-were when Driver B pulled into yet another gas station and popped his hood (that's right, his hood) to have his gas tank filled. He returned a few minutes later and told us that he wasn't going to drive us any further as promised since he allegedly lived in the area and just wanted to go home. Of course, he told us, he would get "his friend" to drive us the rest of the way. We were pretty riled up by this point, and even moreso when he returned from trying to find us a willing cabbie and told us that he'd only found one, and that this guy was demanding that we pay an extra 50LE. We piled out of the cab as quick as we could and started arguing with Driver B. The agreement had been, after all, that we would be delivered where we wanted to go in Cairo, without paying any extra money. Driver C got involved in this also. He spoke even less English than Driver B, and was somehow convinced that he wasn't going to get any money at all. All of the gas station attendants decided that this argument would be the most excitement they'd have all night, so they all crowded around and joined in, with our argument by this point involving almost fifteen people and devolving into practically a shouting match with massive misunderstanding all around.

Eventually we managed to work out a deal wherein we would only pay 7LE extra for Driver C to take us to Zamalek instead of Ramses Square, since that's what the total extra fare should have been. The fight broke up, and the four of us got into Driver C's cab. It was about as junky as Driver B's, but much smaller. We were pretty relieved to no longer be in the presence of the dirty old man anymore though, so we were relatively satisfied with the way this had worked out.

We drove on for awhile longer, and I began to recognize some of the landmarks of Cairo's afueras from the various field trips I'd been on. 40 minutes later we were back in Zamalek, safe and sound if a little shaken and nearly two hours later than we would have been if we'd just taken the bus.

No more intercontinental taxis for me. Ick.


Anonymous Richard Bryan said...

The photo of the stripey cave is awesome. BTW, what is the preferred method for viewing the stereo images? I assume that's what the double photos are. And how do you take those shots?

Your taxi ride reminds me of a similar ride FC and I had back from Mexico one time when bad weather caused our return flight to be cancelled, but your adventure makes our ride seem like a "ride in the park", so to speak.

2:25 PM

Blogger Kat said...

I think the best way to look at the stereo photos is the same way you might look at a "Magic Eye" image... i.e. kind of cross your eyes at it and adjust the distance between yourself and the picture until the 3D image appears. :)

I take the stereo photos by trying to find a flat surface to balance the camera on (or not, and then try to crop strategically) then slide it back and forth to take one photo each with my dominant and non-dominant eye. There's probably an easier way, but it seems to work pretty well.

4:26 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You and your companions have been participants in what will surely become a durable tale. And you've learnt a few things that can only be learnt by living them. Hopefully, the lessons require no repetition.

-|| AFRO-KEN ||-

10:40 PM


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